What Were You Thinking, Lord?

I don’t think any of us will forget Lent 2020! I wish this was the case because our homilies, parish mission, Stations of the Cross, Lenten Holy Hours and this season’s editions of Something To Think About have been so inspiring. I wish this was the case because we all managed to change a bit for the better as a result of reflecting upon the gift of Jesus’ presence among us. Rather, our memories of these forty days will focus upon the startling adjustments we’ve all made to our daily lives in response to COVID-19. Many of our efforts to observe Lent have been rerouted or derailed as we’ve concentrated on keeping our loved ones and ourselves safe and healthy. Our world has literally been turned topsy-turvy by all of this.

As I attempted to prepare for this writing, my thoughts wandered. I looked upward to pray for our human family as we fight on to find an antidote for those infected by the virus and a vaccine to make the rest of us immune. I went on to pray for my friends and my own extended and immediate family. When I attempted to get back to this writing, I was happily interrupted my a multi-person series of texts from my sisters, niece and nephew. Not long after, our sons surprised Grandpa and me with a three-way FaceTime call. What a joy it was to see that all concerned are safe and well! Suddenly, my upside-down world seemed manageable. As I returned to this writing, I realized that this world has been turned upside-down again and again throughout history. Our human family has survived and even flourished amidst the unexpected again and again. As I considered that first Palm Sunday, it occurred to me that Jesus’ world was turned upside-down as well. I wondered what Jesus was thinking in the midst of all of this. Though I have no way of knowing his thoughts, I imagined Jesus offering his own prayer …

…Judas has warned me. Though he smiles at the crowds, he wrings his hands in the face of Caiaphas and the others in the temple. Judas tells me that I spend too much time with outcasts. He wonders what the poor and the sick and the sinful will do to help our cause. I try to tell him, “Judas, don’t you see that these are the ones who need me?” He doesn’t hear me. Judas is agitated today. Though the crowds wave palms and call my name, Judas tells me to beware. Rumblings of discontent fill the air. While the people make a path for me with their olive branches and capes, the temple guard mumble against me. I know Judas is considering his options. If things continue as they are, Abba, what will he do? Peter, John, Thomas and the others dismiss their worry. They can’t help losing themselves in today’s joy. Abba, what will come of this?

All of this began in the desert. I thought I knew what was coming then. I urged John to baptize me to show the people that change is in store. Peter and Andrew followed me as soon as I called them. When they saw the resolve of these two, the others joined me as well. The people are suffering. They would accept the poverty if they were free of the tyranny. It is no wonder they rejoice in you. That mountainside encounter with Peter, James and John was but a taste of what is to come. Abba, the crowd closes in on us as we walk. This one who chants, “Hosanna!” looks like the woman I met at Jacob’s well. I will always cherish the moment she embraced your love. She continues to live in your name. Bless her with strength for the journey. The man who was blind is another witness to your glory. He repeats the tale of his journey into the light to all who will listen. He understands, Abba, because he once lived in the darkness of isolation. You have blessed me with many reminders of your love. Mary, Martha and Lazarus made their home my own. When it was most difficult to understand, Mary and Martha held onto hope and believed. Now, Jerusalem welcomes me, but will their welcome last? When the darkness comes, Abba, light their way. When the darkness closes in, Abba, light my way…

No, I cannot pretend to know Jesus’ thoughts as the crowd cheered him into Jerusalem that day. I cannot pretend to know how Jesus made it to Gethsemane, to Pilate’s hall, through that scourging and along the streets of Jerusalem with a crossbeam on his bleeding shoulders. I cannot pretend to know how Jesus lasted as long as he did on that cross. Jesus’ world was turned upside-down, far more powerfully than ours is today, yet he endured. What I do know is all that Jesus has taught me: That God remains steadfast in loving every one of us; that we must pay this blessing forward by loving one another. This is Lent 2020 and our homes and neighborhoods, our workplaces, schools and this church have been turned upside-down by a strange virus. Like Jesus that first Palm Sunday, we aren’t certain of what the coming day or week will bring. Still, like Jesus, we persist because Jesus showed us the way and his Abba walks beside us all the while.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Peacemakers All…

Blessed are the peacemakers;
you shall be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9

While in Israel, I was amazed by the circumstances of its people and its property. Israel occupies a large portion of what we consider to be the Holy Land. Interestingly enough, the holiest places within its borders are controlled by various entities including Muslims, Christians and Jews. Our guide is an Israeli citizen who respects his countrymen whatever their beliefs. He speaks Hebrew, Arabic and Italian (among other languages). As a result, he gained us access to sites where others are denied entry. Whenever this occurred, Yossi didn’t revel in his success. He simply pointed out that being respectful of the ways of others and meeting others on their own turf or terms usually leads to peaceful encounters which benefit all concerned. “This is the way to peace,” Yossi would say.

Perhaps this is the reason Yossi exhibited some impatience with his Hasidic Jewish neighbors. I was surprised to learn that they make up only ten percent of Israel’s population. Most of this sect live in their own neighborhoods where they adhere to the strictest code of conduct. Our guide also surprised me when he shared that eighty percent of the population is non-religious. It seemed to trouble Yossi to acknowledged that the holiest place on earth is home to so many non-religious people. Yossi shared that the strict rules and intolerance of a few had soured many Israelis’ views of organized religion.

As I pondered all of this, I considered the “secular” Jewish people who shared the path with us during our stay. Though they didn’t profess a religious affiliation, they did work toward change through their interactions with neighbors of multiple ethnicities. I wondered if they realized that they were peacemakers just like Yossi.

Loving God, help us all to work toward peace with loving hands and loving hearts.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Real Life Lessons

When he saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside.
After he sat down, the disciples gathered around him…

Matthew 5:1

Even from afar, the Mount of the Beatitudes exudes beauty. This deceptively peaceful setting is also known as Mount Eremos. Its name is derived from Greek and means “solitary or uninhabited”. I laugh as I type this fact as the opposite must have been true of this place the day Jesus offered his hope-filled lessons in living.

While Matthew placed Jesus on a mountainside for this discourse, Luke described the site as a level place. A close look clears up this discrepancy as there are numerous level places on the hillsides of Galilee. Jesus could have delivered his sermon from any one of them. More important is the value of Jesus’ teaching that day. Matthew’s indication that Jesus sat before he began mustn’t be overlooked. Those who taught in the temple always sat before offering their lessons. Jesus made a point when he followed suit. Once again, it was quite clear that Jesus taught with authority.

As for me, I’ve found myself weary of the empty words of an assortment “authority figures” throughout my life. What a life-giving experience it was when my parents and a favorite teacher and a respected public figure and my priest asked no more of me than they asked of themselves! This is precisely the experience of those who heard Jesus that day. This was their experience every time Jesus opened his mouth because Jesus’ actions always spoke louder than his words.

Loving God, thank you for sending an authentic representative to share your loving ways with us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Truly Blessed!

Blessed are you…
From Matthew 5:11

Though most of what I experienced in Israel captivated me, I clearly recall my excitement as we neared The Mount of the Beatitudes. Anyone familiar with the gospels likely recalls Jesus’ message to the crowds before him that day. Matthew 5:3-10 tells us that Jesus insisted…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

As I prepared to take in what I could from that precious place, I replayed these words in my head. There was nothing easy about being poor, mournful, meek or hungry in Jesus’ day. It was difficult to be merciful and peaceful when Jesus’ people received neither from their government or their temple. Perhaps they found consolation in the fate Jesus promised the persecuted because, indeed, they were. As we drew closer, I hoped that beautiful setting would inspire me to stay tuned, just as it inspired the crowds who listened so long ago…

Loving God, when you created this world and gifted us with it and with one another, did you hope we would behave as Jesus asked? Be with us as we try to do just that today and always.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Palm Sunday… So It Begins…

I find that preparing for Holy Week is much like preparing for a family member’s final farewell. The week will be filled with reminiscing, memories good and bad, some regret and a measure of consolation. Holy Week is our opportunity to walk with our loved one through his final moments. Heartbreaking as this will be, we will also lay him in what was meant to be his final resting place. All the while, we’ll consider all that we’ve been through together, what we’re proud of and what we wish we’d done differently. “Holy” is the perfect descriptor for the week we will spend acknowledging Jesus’ loving presence in this world and in our lives.

This Holy Week, I will revisit my walk through the Holy Land. This is Palm Sunday and my thoughts turn to Jerusalem. The people who encountered Jesus offered him a raucous welcome on that first Palm Sunday. Our treks through Jerusalem’s market places gave me a taste of the frenzy in which Jesus must have arrived in the Holy City. Did some of those who cheered Jesus that day also join the crowd who screamed “Crucify him!” later in the week? While considering this possibility, I’ll take a mental trip to the Western Wall. This ancient embankment once served as a retaining wall for the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. Jesus frequented the temple which rested there. Jesus predicted this temple’s eventual destruction which did occurred at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. It was likely in or near this temple that Judas forged his agreement with the Pharisees to betray Jesus. While in Israel, I prayed at the Western Wall with my fellow pilgrims. Today, I shudder over Judas’ work there. Little did the poor man realize that his regret for this deed would lead him to a far more troubling brink a few days later.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I will consider the life which brought Jesus to this difficult week. Jesus’ lived in difficult times. It is no wonder that the people found hope in what Jesus said and did. When Jesus offered God’s compassionate love as well, how could they resist following him? On Holy Thursday, I’ll revisit Jesus’ last meal with his closest friends. While Judas wrestled with his plan, the disciples made arrangements for Passover. The Franciscan monastery near where this gathering likely took place houses a life-sized sculpture of this unforgettable meal. When I entered, the scene before me took my breath away. Though I attempted to put myself into the mindset of Jesus’ friends, I found it difficult to imagine what they were thinking. They’d shared a good deal of wine as they ate. They’d also shared a good deal of fear since no one was certain of how their Passover observance would end. It was when I turned to a lone statue standing in the shadows of the chapel that I found some consolation. This image of Mary Magdalene portrayed a loving calm which was absent at the table. Mary’s heart surely ached as she watched Jesus and the rest. Still, had she listened so carefully to Jesus’ teaching that she was convinced that the God of Israel would never abandon him? Had she seen Jesus’ strength so often that she knew he would endure until the end? This week, I will meditate with Mary regarding all that she saw in Jesus.

On Good Friday, I will envision three crosses looming above me in the afternoon sun. I will watch as Jesus hangs there with the others who share his death sentence. After dragging the crossbeam of that cross through the narrow and crowded streets of the ancient city, Jesus likely fell before the soldiers who nailed him in place. When the cross was positioned in the ground, Jesus’ flesh tore all the more as he struggled to breathe. There was nothing reverent about the scene which Jesus observed from his wooden deathbed. Soldiers nearby casted lots for Jesus’ clothing. No one was allowed to approach Jesus-the-Insurgent. Nonetheless, many passersby jeered from afar. Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, John and the others likely watched in horror from a small distance. After three very long hours, Jesus completed his work and his suffering in this world.

This is Holy Week. Though there is sadness to share as we walk with Jesus through his last days, there is also joy to be found. Jesus’ story didn’t end on the cross. Jesus’ story didn’t end in the tomb I reverenced in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus’ story continued into the garden outside the tomb where he greeted Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning. Jesus’ story continued in his every appearance thereafter. Jesus’ story continues within you and me and all of God’s people. This is Holy Week. Come, walk with him as his story continues.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Jesus’ Mountain

When he saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside.
After he sat down, the disciples gathered around him…

Matthew 5:1

The Mount of the Beatitudes is another favorite place to which I returned this year. Though I cannot mark off the specific parcel on which the people gathered to hear Jesus, the geography of the mountainside indicates that we were in the vicinity. The view from my bus window revealed the beauty of this much-referenced site. As we neared our drop-off point, I wondered if those who gathered there were prepared for Jesus’ radically simple and love-filled lessons in living.

While Matthew placed Jesus on a mountainside for this discourse, Luke described the site as level land. A close look clears up this discrepancy as there are numerous level places on the hillsides of Galilee. Jesus could have delivered his sermon from any one of them. None of this matters as it is the essence of Jesus’ teaching that day which turned his world upside-down. Matthew’s indication that Jesus sat before he began is an important observation. Those who taught in the temple always sat before offering their lessons. Jesus made a point when he followed suit. Jesus, too, was teaching with authority.

What a life-giving experience it must have been to hear Jesus ask the people to live in a way in which he was willing to live himself. There were no double standards for the mighty and the poor. Jesus asked the same of them all. Those who heard Jesus that day listened because Jesus’ actions always spoke louder than his words.

Loving God, thank you for sending an authentic representative to share your loving ways with us.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved